Ghost Towns of the Piney Woods

 

Bland Lake served mills, became a town

By Bob Bowman
Special to the Journal

When Jeff Bland built a small lake in northern San Augustine County in 1893, he never dreamed it would evolve into a center for political power in Texas.

Bland and his father Calvin came to East Texas from Toppleton, Georgia, in 1892, purchased a large tract of land four miles north of San Augustine, and built a lake of nearly thirty acres, using mules, drays and hand labor.

Fed by a series of natural springs, the lake became the headwaters for Ayish Bayou, one of East Texas' most famous streams.

Bland's lake was intended to provide water for a steam sawmill, a tie mill and a cotton gin, all of which served farm families living in the area. The flow of water from a sluice also powered a grist mill and, when the flow was insufficient to power the mill, it was driven by a Model T automobile engine.

In a time when large, man-made lakes were uncommon, Bland Lake evolved into a popular recreational area where families paid fifty cents a day to swim, fish and enjoy picnic lunches. Jeff Bland also built a large pavilion, where dances were held, and a domino parlor sat nearby on a site near the present-day spillway.

Bland also operated a saloon on the lake, which often led to fights and brawls. In one fight, one of Bland's relatives lost a leg, which was respectfully buried on the lake's shoreline. On Saturday nights, when fights were frequent, Jeff Bland's son, Walter, patrolled the lake with a blackjack used to subdue rowdies.

Bland Lake soon evolved into a well-known community with a large general store operated by the Ware family and later by the Richards family, who sold gasoline with the arrival of automobiles.

In 1901, the Gulf, Colorado and Sante Fe Railroad came to the community and Bland sold some of his land as a railroad right-of-way, enabling trains to run from the community to San Augustine. A small engine called "the Doodlebug" pulled a passenger car between the two communities twice a day.

When a post office was established at Bland Lake the same year, it was simply called "Stop," presumably because the railroad made a stop there. The post office was renamed Bland Lake in 1903.

In 1907, the community had two schools serving seventy-six black students and one school with fifty white pupils. By 1914, Bland Lake had fifty inhabitants, the Bland and Fisher Lumber Corporation, a second lumber mill, a grocer and a general store.

Bland had a vision of his lakeside resort becoming a large town and once surveyed the site with proposed streets and lots, registering the development as "Bland City" at the county courthouse. But the venture never went forward.

Several sawmills also operated in the Bland Lake area. County records show the Bland-Fisher sawmill in 1904, the Allen sawmill in 1906, a Bland-Perry sawmill in 1908, a Beckham Brothers sawmill in 1909, the O.S. Wooley sawmill in 1910, and the T.P.Wragg mill in 1910. However, it is likely that some of the sawmills were the same facility, but operated by different individuals.

During its heyday, Bland Lake became widely known for its "Fresh Home Ground Corn Meal," a variety of meal milled at Bland Milling Company and sold by Jeff Bland from a pickup truck as he traveled throughout San Augustine, Shelby and Sabine counties.

When their original home burned in 1910, Jeff Bland and his wife Mattie built a large, plantation-style house--largely from heart pine milled at the Bland Lake sawmill--with wrap-around porches. A carpenter cut each piece of lumber individually and, with the help of an assistant, assembled the house by hand, making only a few correction cuts.

In 1910, the house became the birthplace of Joe Fisher (the son of Guy Fisher and Lula Bland Fisher), whose skills as an attorney and federal judge led him to become part of a San Augustine triumvirate that met at Bland Lake and made decisions with far-reaching consequences in Texas.

Fisher was joined by Lieutenant Governor Ben Ramsey and former U.S. Ambassador to Australia Edward Clark, also from San Augustine County.

The three were related and often invited to Bland Lake legislators, state officials, federal officials and other politicians who shaped Texas' government policies for a half-century. Fisher's son, John, remembers as a young boy that "some of the most powerful men in Texas came to Bland Lake and made decisions on the front porch of our home."

By 1940, Bland Lake had only twenty-five inhabitants, a church, one business and a number of scattered homes, including the landmark Bland-Fisher home. Its population was unchanged in 2006.

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin, Texas, is the author of more than 30 books about East Texas, including "The Forgotten Towns of East Texas, Book I.")

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